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Political Signs Litter Scarsdale's Landscape

electionsignsThis is the opinion of site owner Joanne Wallesntein
A bucolic village that protects its landscape, trees and vistas is now covered in a barrage of political signs. Though political and commercial signage in the Village right of way were previously barred by Village code, a challenge to that law has resulted in an onslaught of advertising which some find to be an assault to their senses.

Looking back, political fights were rare in Scarsdale as the Village’s non-partisan system of governance prevented such mudslinging. Rather than elect Village or school leaders in general contested elections, the Village has relied on committees of elected nominators to vet and select candidates for the positions. But in the past few years a persistent group of challengers has contested Scarsdale’s non-partisan system and marred each election with bitter partisanship.

This month, Scarsdale will hold its election for Village Trustees and Village Justice on September 15, a contest that was originally scheduled for March, but delayed by Governor’s orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the challengers, Robert Berg, is making another bid for Village Trustee. A lawyer by trade, Berg sued the Village in January 2018, prior to a school bond vote, after Scarsdale police removed signs that Berg had posted in the Village right of way, within 13 feet of the curb of his own home. He claimed this violated his First Amendment rights and sought to prevent the Village from “continuing to interfere irreparably with residents’ Free Speech rights.”

According to Berg, “I filed an action in federal court and sought emergency relief to prevent the Village and Police Department from continuing to interfere irreparably with residents’ Free Speech rights. The following day, the federal judge held an emergency hearing and issued an injunction forbidding the Village and the Police Department from taking any action with respect to residents’ placement of political signs in the Village right of way in front of their homes so long as those signs do not present a traffic or safety hazard. The federal judge found that I had demonstrated irreparable injury and a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. See Berg v. Village of Scarsdale, 2018 WL 740997 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 6, 2018).”

However, when interpreting this ruling, the Village of Scarsdale did not stop at the front lawn. Instead, they issued a February 2018 temporary restraining order that said, “Effective immediately the enforcement and or removal of any sign placed on the village property or the right of way will cease. The department will not remove any signs placed on village property or right of way nor will a village code summons be issued to a person placing sign on village property or right of way. This will be for any sign, i.e. Commercial or political.”

In short, Villagers were now free to post signs not only on their yards, but anywhere in Scarsdale.

While the Village awaits a decision from the court, Berg’s Voters Choice Party is taking full advantage of the temporary restraining order and plastering lawns and Village properties with political signage for their slate of candidates. The Scarsdale Pool, Village Hall, and traffic islands have become venues for his campaign. Worse, once those signs are gone, we may find signs for dating websites, lawn-care, and food delivery that police will be barred from removing.

Traditionally, even realtors were prohibited from posting “for sale” signs in front of homes on the market. Now, however, we confront a blitzkrieg of signs, in a startling departure from Village norms.

“The taxpayer owns Village properties. That's us,” wrote resident Lee Fischman. “Having political signage placed on Village properties' right of way is akin to appropriating our endorsement. I did not give Berg, Selvaggio and Cohen permission to advertise in front of taxpayer property and neither did the judge.” Deriding the signs as a “public eyesore” in the “midst of summery greenery,” Fischman cited a Supreme Court decision, Los Angeles vs. Vincent (1984), in which the high court deemed signs posted on public property “a significant substantive evil within the City’s power to prohibit.”

So what to do? In the face of this visual assault, the Scarsdale Citizens Nonpartisan Party produced some SCNPsignsigns of their own to defend their nominated slate of candidates. They requested that supporters place signs only on their own lawns, and welcome the removal of any of their signs not placed in front of residential property.

Was the lawsuit civic-minded as Berg claims? Does it help or hurt the taxpayer? It’s not clear how much money the Village has already spent defending themselves in court but it is evident that many do not like the signage. It’s yet to be seen whether this pageantry will assist the Voter’s Choice Party in their bid to defeat the candidates selected in the non-partisan process. My bet is that the signage will confuse and annoy many that the challengers are seeking to persuade.

The real question is, will taxpayers benefit from selecting trustees who file costly lawsuits and litter our neighborhood? As their sign reads, are they really for a “better” Village?

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